My mother told me the other day that, shortly after she moved to SoHo in 1968, she submitted an application to live in Stuyvesant Town. She promptly forgot about the application and was thus surprised, a couple of years later, to receive a letter offering her an apartment in the sprawling east-side complex that spans 14th Street to 23rd Street between First Avenue and Avenue C. She says she told my father about the letter and his reply was, “No way.” Just like that. He was being offered the security of a stable, low rent in a family-friendly environment, but he still said, “No way.”
Without hindsight, if I were my dad, I think I would have taken it. If I had come to the U.S. with no money and had a family to support like my father, I would have forsaken space for security. You know, played it safe. But maybe New York real estate wasn’t a cuthroat business bursting with anxiety and insecurity like it is today. Or maybe he just had more guts than I do. In 1969, the year I was born, our rent on Crosby Street was $120. That was actually a stretch for my parents, who stressed over the price of a taxi to take my mother to the hospital when she went into labor. Yet my parents chose to remain, illegally, mind you, in a cold, dirty loft in the no-man’s-land that was SoHo.
This story is a reminder to me that it took a certain type of person to actually stick it out, through thick and thin, mostly thin, for an idea. An idea is abstract and is not subject to cold or fatigue or hunger. My friend Wikipedia tells me that Plato considered that knowledge of material things is not really knowledge; real knowledge can only be had of unchanging ideas. I guess the SoHo pioneers were up on their classical Greek philosophy. Mahatma Ghandi once said that
Increase of material comforts, it may be generally laid down, does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth. And John F. Kennedy said that, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
The idea of SoHo was that you made a conscious choice to live below the radar, off the books, so to speak. No certificate of occupancy, no sanitation services, no heat on weekends, no security, none of the usual amenities to speak of. In exchange, you had the freedom to create. The freedom to create your artwork, and also the freedom to create the world around you. As long as you had the faith in yourself to actually do it, to pull it off against all odds.
If you will allow me to insert one more quote, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that, “Faith is taking the first step even if you don’t see the whole staircase.” In order to do some things in life, you just have to have faith. Easy to say, but faith is not for the weak at heart. This is certainly not to say that those who live in Stuy-Town are weak and those who live in the urban wilderness are strong. My mom’s story, however, makes me think, what if….